Can Regret Be Addictive? An Interview with Rachel Genn

Rachel Genn is a neuroscientist, artist and writer who has written two novels: The Cure (2011) and What You Could Have Won (2020). She was a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence (2016), creating The National Facility for the Regulation of Regret, which spanned installation art, VR and film (2016-17). She has written for Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Hotel.

First of all, can you give us a brief introduction to What You Could Have Won? 

What You Could Have Won is a novel that started as a short story about the degradation of a couple’s relationship over the course of The Sopranos box-set. Here was a singer unaware of her own gifts (Astrid) and a scientist who overestimated his talent (Henry)— I wanted to test whether this precarious match could survive the tumult of their combined egos. My own fear about squandering potential, pressured me to include the thorny problem of the artist’s ego and the insatiability of our appetite for recognition. As Henry’s boss says to him in the book, “We can all be encouraged to mis-judge our own worth.”

There were questions: How do we convince ourselves to continue with relationships when the input is inconsistent, often distorted through self-love? —we cannot face the vulnerability it takes to be in love yet live in perpetual cowardice in the face of it. Love might be read perhaps as simply the most harmonious perception of what is and isn’t happening. The difficulties of suppressing this uncomfortable reality are at the heart of this relationship novel.

I think I wrote it to see what kind of woman I was, whether I was a woman at all. Where did my idea of being a woman and internalised misogyny meet? Had the edges fused? I’m not into goodies and baddies, only the hall of mirrors that can make both paths look like they lead to a desired destination.

The book took me a long time to write and that was because of the form it took — one that seemed flickering, arriving in waves, making it hard to keep it close enough to get the stuff down in the right way without destroying it. An early review of the book noted ‘how scenes cut, cross, and interconnect to compose a cubist portrait of the relationship.’ It was exactly what I was trying to do and I felt relieved by the diagnosis, as if I had had an illness that had been misunderstood until that moment. 

Early in the novel, you write ‘regret in an integral part of the addiction machine’. Regret has been a focus for your work across various media – can you tell us where your interest in the subject comes from? 

This is not what I normally say. That witnessing the people I love suffering because of their own addictions made the greatest impression on me from earliest childhood and this influenced how I navigated my own.

What I’d say normally is, Regret’s special talent is to take the error you made and show you how it’s all your fault. Then I’d talk of how it forces you to see, on repeat, what you could have done differently. I’d insert that in the book, Henry is using his boss’s time to write ‘How Cocaine Can Break Your Brain’ using Astrid as his guinea-pig; that in addiction a myopia for future consequences means that regret stops working properly; that Literature, expressly through metaphor, has a way of putting flesh on the experience of regret that science struggles to do. That it was metaphor that got me believing in regret as a motivator rather than simply an inhibitor of behaviour. 

My post-doc research in Canada was on incentive relativity, —why something is more or less wanted depending on your previous experience. Later, at the Institute of Psychiatry, we traced how attention fed into what was singled out for pursuit. I might confess that I felt like craving was ‘forgetting regret,’ and end with A Catholic upbringing and Jewish roots, how could I not be obsessed by it? 

But the truth is, when a producer recently asked me straight up— ‘why the obsession with Regret?’  I balked. Wasn’t it enough that I just said Wanting what we no longer like often leads to regret? But documentary producers sniff out insincerity like airport dogs and with her bald question, she had forced me into examining myself.  I looked more carefully at how regret fuels art and how it may be unconsciously cultivated for that reason. Maybe you have to really wish you had made a different decision in order to make your mark. 

How does this novel follow on from the work you’ve done on The National Facility for the Regulation of Regret in Sheffield? 

I took the question “Can regret be addictive?” from science to art and in 2015, I created the National Facility for the Regulation of Regret as a quasi-facility in Bank Street Art gallery, telling stories using characters’ personal belongings, —characters who checked themselves in when their regret-related behaviours got out of hand. Within the NFRR therapies were overseen by a narcissistic Psychiatrist Henry Sinclair, — the same Henry as lives out his younger life in the novel. In What You Could Have Won we follow Henry’s early career failings as well as personal ones.

The characters were invisible, visitors inferred stories narrated by the objects in their living spaces, (I liked Steinbeck and Calle’s idea that walls of a room can be imbued with personal history). I had been heavily influenced by Leanne Shapton’s book where intimate personal effects collated in an auction catalogue spelled out the progress of a romance. 

The gallery-based institution was home to three clients: Johnny, a middle-aged soap actor who stalks a middle-aged musician; Karl, a gambler crippled by superstition (*Karl’s room); a body dysmorphic woman, Lassie Fortune, who does her own plastic surgery and whose works of art therapy decorate the halls of the facility.

Lassie had used her art therapy to compete her compulsions to modify her body at home (*Merkinhosen). I had been moved by a Korean woman who, unable to afford more fillers, had started to inject cooking oil into her face distorting it so much the local kids called her ‘Standing Fan’ as she walked to work.

The NFRR was never real. Nevertheless, once you mention it, the relevance of its existence deepens, and the recognition of the possibility of regret being regulated comes up in listeners’ faces. A storyteller makes a grab for that, proving facts is not their job but plausibility is everything. I like sproof: spoof proof and I believe that fiction based on scientific findings can discharge reality for the reader/viewer without damaging the integrity of the fact. Something more than both emerges. This is not the same as fake news.

While trying to get funding for an interactive version of the facility, I made a short documentary based on Jonny’s time at the NFRR. Instead of following Jarvis Cocker and getting arrested, our stalking client Jonny could use a VR therapy CROSSHAIRS to teach himself to say at a safe distance (I had previously been awed also by Sophie Calle’s Venetian Suite where she stalked a man to Venice and got her mother to hire a private detective to follow her and document the stalking.

The take was this: it was a commercial puff piece commissioned by the Henry to garner more celebrity custom. The actor Joe Duttine (Tim Metcalfe from Coronation Street) had come to the opening of the NFRR at the gallery in 2015 and it was seeing him in the Occulus headset that convinced me to convince/groom him over coffees, into playing himself in my film. In it, Jonny, a well-known soap actor, was to show how things worked at the facility, but Jonny we discover may not be as in control of his compulsions as he thinks he is. It was selected for the BAFTA-accredited Aesthetica Short Film Festival in 2016.

The Regret-o-Tron followed in 2016. Part of Festival of the Mind, people queued to test their inclination to regret answering absurdist questions on an iPad, an interactive set-up that with its response could induce regret. It was incredibly popular and provoked such extreme reactions, I had to secretly film this demo.  Someone said at the heart of all good conceptual art is a prank.  Disconcertingly, at the heart of all good pranks is sadism.  I talked about this sequence of works quite blithely at SXSW, in Austin Texas in 2017.

A Sopranos box set plays a significant role in the relationship between your two main characters – where does the Sopranos link come from, and how does it fit with the zeitgeist of your novel? 

The Sopranos were a subtext which let me look into our obsession with heroic behaviour in the face of untold damage by it. As the ‘band-aid box set’ that Astrid and Henry watch together, Astrid often evaluates their relationship according to how much binge watching Henry is up for. I was writing the book during the rise of the box set, and the advent of epic storytelling on TV, a genre which was (and overwhelmingly still is, with some pointed counters and exceptions) one that “explores” – criticises but mostly celebrates and/or eroticises – the boundary between psychopathy and heroism. The Sopranos was necessary catalyst (in my mind at least) with the ascension of Astrid from her own ashes.

There’s a moment in the book when Astrid and Henry are arguing and Astrid pauses the TV to observe: “Adriana held still for you on the screen, everything you wanted but paused. She was all yours, captured forever if that’s what you demanded and she stayed there, accepting layers and layers and layers of looking at.” Adriana, and how far she will abase herself for Chrissy was an excruciating storyline and paralleled a possible trajectory for Astrid. My job as writer was to pull Astrid off Ade’s course from a distance. 

One of the strengths of the Sopranos was the starting point: Tony having to rely on Dr Melfi at a time of weakness. She was his last hope and her interpretive power as translator of the symbolic for Tony sharpened the contours of his entitlement and misogyny. When Astrid dreams of Tony as her therapist he appears in Melfi’s skirt Tony was desperate for her help, hating Melfi for being necessary to him, the misogynist’s dilemma might be Tony Soprano in Melfi’s skirt.

Writing this book was to pull apart, at the risk of injury, those soft womanly parts in myself that had become confused with internalised misogyny. It was sticky, painful, a mess, I didn’t want to pretend it could be cleaned up easily. 

Le Guin warns that in making the hero’s story the only one, we are becoming “part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.” She devoted herself to seeking the nature, subject, words of “the other story, the untold one, the life story.” At the same time I was looking at the intricate construction of love, how painstakingly we massage truths for ourselves to continue in our ideals, even in the face of evidence counter to this. The gap between characters’ intention and action is where the story is at.

You’ve said that you wrote this novel because you didn’t want Amy Winehouse to be dead; what does she mean for you? And what were the challenges for you as an author, inhabiting the mindset of a singer? 

I was dismayed at how much of herself Amy Winehouse was prepared to give to that bloke (more than she had, it turns out). Looking at Amy’s devotion to Blake as on stage she mouths I Love You, I felt an urge to shield her desperation without using the word desperation. Why could she not see that she did not need him as a windowpane to condense against? Why couldn’t she see she was the steam AND the window. Why couldn’t I love anyone that purely- with the expectation of nothing in return?  Why wasn’t she shouting— When you don’t want me, I will become more of myself and I will be on fire

I was interested in the instant gratification of live performance and the costs of that for the performer. With writing, there’s a glory gap and you create in the hope that this gap will be filled when the reader brings their own experiences to the work to mix with yours.  The two types of performance put me in mind of distinctions between swift and surface and deep and slow thought. Performing to a diffuse crowd may not work to channel your voice as a writer, one needs, or at least I work best with, a particular interlocutor in mind, someone I want to impress because I value their taste. Or love them.

One of the things I especially enjoyed in What You Could Have Won was the use of the Zoot lexicon of Jive as a sort of secret language for Astrid and Henry. Most couples develop this sort of code between them, as part of the bond-forming process, but does the fact that their language is almost appropriated suggest that their relationship is doomed from the start? 

I think that’s part of what I wanted. The Zoot (a lexicon of Jive talk) is the first gift Henry gives to Astrid and initially it was a short-cut to intimacy and allowed each of them access to the others way of thinking — it also served as a thermometer for the heat of the relationship.  Aesthetically, I love Jive for its music and its liveness but I wanted it to be the wrong choice of gift while seeming perfect- ultimately, an excuse he needs not to fall in love with her.  Choosing The Zoot, I had Howard Carter in mind, setting something in train by disturbing sacred spaces where he didn’t belong. The choice of Jive reflects Henry’s sense of entitlement. It is a game that he expected Astrid to collude in without question and though she senses it’s wrong, she continues with it, relies on it for her connection with him, and it costs them both. That it is an appropriated language prods the rotten core of the relationship but I didn’t want to lose the possibility that a shared language could have had redemptive powers and led to a great love story.

When I started to write the book in 2012, we were just picking up tremors of future deep fakery. I was already worrying about how we were going to keep tabs on what was real. I was giving a talk at the Welcome Trust about whether the poetic cases in science can legitimately cross over into fiction. (It was where I met @Badaude who published an early chapter of this novel in Five-Dials.) Fast forward to now and you have IDFA director Casper Sonnen describing documentary as ‘story hampered by reality,’  and I have started to think seriously about how the interpenetration of fact and fiction can enrich or alter the landscape (political or otherwise) of the storyworld. 

Playing Zoot/Not Zoot was one way of representing this. In this game, Henry and Astrid test how well each other have learned their Lexicon of Jive by dropping fake definitions into conversation. So the Zoot also represented what might and might not be real. My kids often ask me what the difference is between jokes and lies and I can never give them a satisfactory answer. I start drawing venn diagrams and then scribble them out. 

Midway through the novel, Astrid visits the Plydo facility, which adopts an almost religious atmosphere around wellness and rehab. Is this a counterbalance to the obsession with regret? 

I was asked recently if I intended to make this book funny and I feel that if we drill in the right spots, we cannot stop comedy from at least welling up whenever we strike tragedy.

In the book, Please Leave Your Disease Outside (PLYDO) is the motto of Hypno-Ray’s rehab and plays on the tragic hope that we can convince ourselves into more healthy habits through therapy. Ray’s rehab makes the most of the evangelical tone of those kinds of group therapy set-ups. I loved writing Ray, whose quirks are partially based on a night spent in a basement with Lemmy. Readers have plenty of opportunity to see how flawed the arrangement of the facility is, especially headed up by Ray, whose ego and desire saturates everything, despite his cassock. The tenets of wellness, the acronyms, the earnestness in the face of abjection becomes blackly comic. Writing the Finally, Nudes chapter for Ray was one of my writing highs.

When I made the NFRR, again, I was really pushing the porosity between reality and fiction, kind of courting the incongruence as a source of comedy. The reason I became obsessed with Joe Duttine playing himself in my little film was that he was already a real soap star, but he would be pretending to be a soap star who stalks another celebrity. This toggling between the real and the fake creates an irresistible tickling but I imagine for others it can be an itch, an irritation. 

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Zikhr beads. My mother’s bracelet. All the jars of our hair that my father saved. My kids’ teeth. Their hair. My aunty’s calliper. My dad’s boning out knife.  Amulets and weapons basically: charms that wedge me firmly between divining and hunting, like any storyteller I suppose. 

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

The laws of physics didn’t change for aeroplanes to fly. 

(Sheikh Nazim Effendi)

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Any portrait needs the be a live agitation of that person at their extremes (out of control, in control as with Dock Ellis here https://vimeo.com/45983332). In a good portrait you are more or less directly aware of the what has provoked the subject’s extreme behaviours in the past. I have watched this short probably 20 times. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqbFlShXpIc

I guess I love people who have been through the fire but live with the burn.

Thanks to all who contributed to NFRR installation/film/interactive especially- Joe Duttine; Danny Naylor; Sally Wickenden; Square Pebble; Rachel Smith; Joanna Walsh; Grant Gillespie; Alice Goulding; Beth Giblin; Joi Polloi.com